Eating Disorders: What You Know May Save a Life

woman with eating disorder

Those suffering from mental illness are often stigmatized, and people with eating disorders have endured particularly harsh public shaming and humiliation. As a result, many are reluctant to admit to these syndromes and struggle in silence until the problems become severe and can no longer be ignored or hidden.

Seriousness of Eating Disorders

All mental illnesses, including eating disorders, are diseases that affect the brain and cause mild to severe disruptions in a person’s thoughts or behaviors. This results in an inability to cope with the demands and routines of daily life.

Eating disorders involve dangerous disturbances in eating behavior and weight regulation. But contrary to many misconceptions, these disorders are not merely about food.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are associated with a wide range of adverse psychological, physical and social consequences. They also frequently coexist with other mental illnesses such as depression, substance abuse or anxiety disorders.

If a person does not receive treatment, the symptoms can become life threatening. In fact, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are not merely poor lifestyle choices, and getting beyond stereotypes is essential to ensure proper treatment. Early intervention is a critical first step, and recognizing signs and symptoms improves chances of getting help for those in need.

There are three primary classifications for eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Each of these illnesses involves a complex variety of emotions, attitudes and behaviors regarding weight and food. The descriptions below provide a general overview of the typical symptoms associated with each disorder:

Anorexia Nervosa

Patients weighing at least 15 percent less than the normal healthy weight expected for their height are diagnosed with this illness. Those with anorexia refuse to eat enough and often exercise obsessively to lose weight. Once the body begins to starve, the following symptoms may develop:

  • Menstrual periods cease
  • Osteopenia or osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) through loss of calcium
  • Hair/nails become brittle
  • Skin dries and can take on a yellowish cast
  • Mild anemia, resulting in muscles wasting away, including the heart muscle
  • Severe constipation
  • Drop in blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse rates
  • Internal body temperature falls, causing person to feel cold all the time
  • Depression and lethargy

Bulimia Nervosa

Individuals with bulimia nervosa are not as underweight as people with anorexia nervosa. They can be slightly underweight, normal weight, overweight or even obese. They can often eat very rapidly, and binge eating is frequent. During binges, their stomachs often hurt from being expanded beyond normal capacity. After a binge, purging by throwing up or using laxatives is common. Symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Salivary glands in the neck and below the jaw become swollen; cheeks and face often become puffy, causing sufferers to develop a “chipmunk” face
  • Tooth enamel wears off; teeth begin to decay from exposure to stomach acids
  • Constant vomiting causes gastro-esophageal reflux disorder
  • Laxative abuse causes irritation, leading to intestinal problems
  • Diuretics (water pills) cause kidney problems
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids

Binge Eating Disorder

People with binge eating disorder consume very large quantities of food in a brief period and feel out of control during the binge. But unlike those with bulimia, they do not get rid of the food by purging. Excessive eating is chronic and can lead to serious health complications, particularly severe obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. These traits, associated with three or more of the following symptoms, may indicate binge eating disorder:

  • Eating more rapidly than normal
  • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
  • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating
  • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed or very guilty afterward

Successful Treatment of Eating Disorders

Thankfully, there are many kinds of treatment for those overwhelmed by these illnesses. For most people with an eating disorder, full recovery is possible with appropriate help and support.

Awareness programs, such as those sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association, promote proper nutrition, exercise and other healthy practices and are available in many areas. The involvement and intervention of friends and family are also crucial due to the importance of early detection.

Because of the serious physical problems caused by these illnesses, it is important that any treatment plan include general medical care, nutritional management and nutritional counseling. These measures are essential for rebuilding physical well-being and establishing healthy eating practices.

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